October 24, 2012 — In 2005, as U.S. commanders began sending troops to an Afghanistan valley they considered strategic, one of the first Americans killed was a 29-year-old Navy SEAL from Patchogue: Lt. Michael P. Murphy.
U.S. troops fought to a stalemate in the thinly populated valley over the next five years. But in 2010, U.S. commanders decided that pouring men and material into holding the valley no longer made sense, and Taliban fighters retook the valley within hours after U.S. troops left.
Now, President Barack Obama and contender Mitt Romney say combat troops should leave Afghanistan altogether by 2014.
Their agreement on ending the nation's longest war is one of many examples of key national security issues where the approaches of Obama and Romney appear to differ little, a range of policy analysts say.
The issues include Iran's alleged efforts to build a nuclear weapon, the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists, and attacks on American troops in Afghanistan. However, the candidates remain apart on U.S. military spending and the optimal size of the fighting force.
"I do think there is more rhetoric than actual difference between their approaches to the military," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a senior defense analyst with the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
Nora Bensahel, deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, said that while Romney has used more aggressive language in his foreign policy pronouncements, his and Obama's approaches on all but the issue of military spending are remarkably similar. "Romney didn't try to define a difference in military policy during the debate, though he did try to differentiate himself in tone," Bensahel said of Monday's presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla.
Romney has proposed a foreign policy course that on several significant issues is close to the president's, according to defense experts and an examination of Romney's statements.
Under Obama, the United States has actively used drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere, despite critics saying it amounts to execution without trial.
Discussing drone strikes during a Republican primary debate in South Carolina last November, Romney said: "I would continue to do that."
Obama has resisted military intervention in Iran, but has imposed stiff economic sanctions.
Romney in the past has criticized the tactic as weak, but during Monday's debate he embraced sanctions as a way to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"It's absolutely the right thing to do, to have crippling sanctions," Romney said. "I would have put them in place earlier. But it's good that we have them."
Obama and Romney still have differences on national security issues.
Romney frequently labels his national security policy as a more muscular alternative to Obama's. "This is very simple: if you do not want America to be the strongest nation on earth, I am not your president. You have that president today," Romney said during a July 24 speech in Reno, Nev., before the National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
"The disagreement I have with Governor Romney is that during the course of this campaign he's often talked as if we should take premature military action," Obama said during Monday's debate. "I think that would be a mistake."
Obama has rejected sending arms to the Syrian rebels, saying to do so would risk spinning an already chaotic situation into a regional war.
In a speech at the Virginia Military Institute two weeks ago, Romney said he would arm Syrian rebels to help them overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad.
Romney says the Obama administration offered a confusing account of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans on Sept. 11.
Obama said he branded the killings as acts of terrorism from the start, and accused Romney of using the issue for political gain.
In speeches and on his campaign website, Romney has favored increasing the size of the U.S. military.
Romney's proposals would result in a U.S. Army that at roughly 570,00 troops would be nearly 100,000 larger than envisioned by Obama.
Over 10 years, Romney's military would cost U.S. taxpayers about $2 trillion more than what Obama is proposing, according to defense analysts and the candidates themselves.
But Romney could have a hard time achieving those levels, because of pressures to narrow the nation's budget deficit, several defense analysts said.
Obama has begun shrinking Pentagon spending and reducing the size of America's entire 1.4 million military force.
In a Jan. 5 presentation at the Pentagon, Obama proposed a sweeping change of American military capability, pivoting away from ground wars fought by large conventional forces, and toward a lighter, leaner military that would more often impose its might through surgical strikes. It envisioned an American military that would be large enough to fight a single large-scale war, rather than the simultaneous two-war strategy that has guided military planning since World War II.
Some critics, including defense analysts with the Heritage Foundation, have said Obama already has been too hasty to bring home American troops from Iraq, and imprudent in announcing a 2014 date for the end of combat operations in Afghanistan. "It was very damaging to the U.S. strategy," said Heritage senior fellow Lisa Curtis, "because it told the Taliban they just needed to wait out the U.S. and NATO forces."
But other analysts have said that with an increasingly war-weary American public and a dwindling U.S. Treasury, whomever is elected next month will likely seek to minimize America's military interventions for the foreseeable future.Related: